Cannabis to Marihuana: What’s In a Name?

Cannabis to Marihuana: What’s In a Name?

How did we go from using the term cannabis to marihuana, and back again? In August, the Federal Government of Canada introduced the Access to Cannabis for Medical Purposes Regulations. The ACMPR is an update to previous legislation that was found to be in violation of Canadians’ right to reasonable access to cannabis for medical purposes (Allard v. Canada, 2016). This new legislation updated the antiquated language the government had previously been using. The previous framework, Marihuana for Medical Purposes Regulations (MMPR), used the term ‘marihuana’ instead of the plant’s actual name: cannabis.

What’s in a name: Cannabis to Marijuana

The term cannabis originated in Latin and Greek etymology and was first used by the Scythians in reference to the plant as early as the second century B.C.E. The Scythians are credited with spreading use of the plant through the Middle East and into Europe, where it would eventually receive its scientific classification from botanist Carolus Linnaeus in 1753: cannabis sativa. Prior to the 1900s, the word cannabis was well-known and found on the ingredient list of medications for common ailments such as cough medicines and sleep aids. In common language, ‘marijuana’ replaced the original term. Marijuana is a term with somewhat different roots.

Harry Anslinger, the first director for the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, is responsible for popularizing the term marijuana/marihuana. According to Martin Lee’s latest book Smoke Signals, the term marijuana/marihuana can be traced back to the early 1930s when it appeared in a campaign aimed at smearing Mexican migrants and cannabis, their substance of choice.

“By stigmatizing marijuana and the ‘foreigners’ who smoked it . . . [the U.S. government] succeeded in exacerbating anti-Mexican sentiment during the Great Depression, when many Anglos felt they were competing with brown-skinned migrants for scarce jobs . . . Anslinger disclosed in 1936 that 50 percent of violent crimes committed in districts occupied by ‘Mexicans, Greeks, Turks, Filipinos, Spaniards, Latin Americans, and Negros may be traced to the use of marihuana’ . . . Anslinger brandished the non-English term like a truncheon to emphasize the weed’s connection to alien elements that crept over the Mexican border into the United States.” (p. 51)

Cannabis and the individuals who used it were painted as blemishes on society.

The Racist Roots

The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 (United States) was passed and the term, steeped in racism, was written into law. Canada shares a similar history of drug prohibition: Cannabis was added to the Confidential Restricted List in 1923 under the Narcotics Drug Act Amendment Bill and 1937 marked the first arrest for cannabis that occurred in Canada. It’s no secret that a disproportionate number of minorities have been targeted by the War on Drugs. In Canada, Blacks and Aboriginals make up a significant portion of the prison population while making up a much smaller proportion of the general population, however, they are disproportionately arrested for cannabis-related crimes when compared to whites, despite comparable rates of use.

Bringing Science Back

Reintegration of cannabis’s scientific name into common and political discourse represents a change in attitude towards the substance, both publicly and politically. The Federal Government’s decision to replace the ignorant term marijuana is a step towards more inclusive, academic, and scientific policies. The words we choose to use often reflect our beliefs and biases, so let’s hope this signals a shift in the government’s approach and perspective on one of the country’s most widely consumed drugs.

With science being re-integrated into drug policy, we hope our government values evidence and will incorporate what young people have to say about cannabis legalization into upcoming laws – and realize that cannabis is just the beginning for harm reduction and sensible drug policy in Canada. Don’t forget to sign our petition to stop the continued criminalization of dispensary workers in Toronto!

For more information

Khenti, A. (2013). The Canadian War on Drugs: Structural violence and unequal treatment of Black Canadians. The International Journal on Drug Policy, 25(2), 190-195.

Lee, M. A. (2013). Smoke Signals


Michelle Theissen

Michelle Theissen

Vice Chair

An Honours graduate with a Psychology B.A. from the University of British Columbia, Michelle will begin her Masters in Clinical Psychology in fall 2016, continuing her research examining the motivations and outcomes of recreational and therapeutic use of cannabis and psychedelics.
Find out more.

Megan L. Stager

CSSDP Member

Megan is a psychology student at the University of British Columbia, currently in the final year of her B.A. Hons. Her research interests include legal psychology, morality, drug policy, and well-being. In her spare time, Megan is involved in knowledge dissemination and serves as Treasurer of the Okanagan chapter of the CSSDP.

Youth Report on Cannabis Legalization

Youth Report on Cannabis Legalization

Together with the support of Lift and the International Centre for Science in Drug Policy (ICSDP), CSSDP hosted a youth roundtable in Toronto on September 7, 2016, providing a platform for young people to contribute input to the Task Force for Marijuana Regulation and Legalization on what sensible drug policy should look like. Today, we’re proud to report the findings of “Youth Speak: Cannabis Legalization in the 21st Century.”

Over 21 youth aged 18-29 years old, with diverse backgrounds both within and outside of the current cannabis industry, came together to discuss and provide insights to what the end of prohibition should look like. We broke up into groups to examine and unpack four key topics that affect youth and produced ten main recommendations from our discussions which will be officially presented to the Task Force on Marijuana Legalization and Regulation this Friday September 23, 2016, by our Strategic Advisors and past board members, Jenna Valleriani and Nazlee Maghsoudi. One of our most important findings? Attendees reinforced the idea that science-based, factual education and harm reduction awareness is the most effective way to “protect youth”. From what we’ve heard, it sounds like youth know sensible drug policy, but will our politicians listen?

Here are the core recommendations from the outcome document:

  1. Age restrictions around cannabis access should be as low as possible, with the recommendation of not exceeding legal drinking ages across provinces.
  2. Medical access to cannabis should remain a separate system without age restrictions, but should require physician support.
  3. Youth offenses outside the regulated system should be decriminalized. Criminal sanctions should be replaced with alternatives such as mandatory education, fines, and/or community service.
  4. Past youth criminal records for simple possession and sale of cannabis should be expunged.
  5. Cannabis education should prioritize the development of youth’s “cannabis literacy” by including evidence-based assessment of risks, harm reduction principles, and not passing judgment on use.
  6. Cannabis education should start as early as possible with age-appropriate content, be created with the input of youth and young people, including those who use cannabis, and delivered by a trained facilitator or peer.
  7. Home cultivation of cannabis should be permitted under the new regulatory regime.
  8. Cannabis should not be distributed alongside alcohol, as this would likely exacerbate public health concerns associated with polydrug use.
  9. Distribution of cannabis should include the provision of cannabis education to patrons
  10. People with past non-violent cannabis-related charges should be permitted to participate in, and benefit from, the new legal market for cannabis.

Read the full report here and tell us what you think.

We want to extend special thanks to Dr. Catherine Zahn from the Task Force on Marijuana Legalization and Regulation, Daphne Jurgens, the Senior Advisor for The Cannabis Legalization and Regulation Secretariat, as well as the Honourable MP Adam Vaughan and Honourable MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith for joining us in discussing upcoming laws that disproportionately affect youth and for giving young people a chance to be heard. Additionally, we could not have done it without the generous support of Lift and the International Centre for Science in Drug Policy for their assistance with content and facilitation.

You can see the press release on our findings here. Make sure to check out our other blogs on cannabis legalization and please sign our petition to the City of Toronto to stop criminalizing dispensary workers.

Jenna Valleriani

Jenna Valleriani


A doctoral candidate in Sociology and the Collaborative Addiction Studies at the University of Toronto, Jenna was on the CSSDP board of directors from November 2013, acted as Conference Chair for CSSDP's 2015 conference, was CSSDP representative on the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition steering committee, and volunteers with NORML Canada. Find out more.

Dessy Pavlova

Dessy Pavlova


Dessy has been studying drug policy and the cannabis industry for over a decade. Dessy works with startups and small businesses to develop their brand and digital marketing strategies in and outside of the Canadian cannabis industry and focuses on teaching and sensible drug education.
Find out more.

Introduction to the Harm Reduction Model

Introduction to the Harm Reduction Model

Harm reduction models are misunderstood by many and unknown to others. The harm reduction model is in opposition, by implication of organizational structure, design, and outcomes, to punitive approaches or the zero tolerance model.

Zero tolerance models intend to punish those that use substances by making an example of offenders. Harm reduction models respect drug users and work for social justice linked to human rights (Harm Reduction International, 2016; Harm Reduction Coalition, n.d.). Harm reduction implies implementing safety measures for all psychoactive drugs including controlled drugs, alcohol, tobacco, and pharmaceutical drugs.

In this way, the zero tolerance and the harm reduction models are philosophies about drug use, which implies drug policy, too. The philosophies as theory. The policies as practice. Harm reduction philosophies accept the inevitability of drugs in society. Their use and abuse.

Harm reduction philosophies emphasize individual substance users, communities, and policies in a singular framework. It contrasts with the zero tolerance approach, where the unification is punishment of offenders divided into four big consequences for youth, for one instance of drug use, possession, trafficking, or in reality, simply being caught.

The Center for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) says, “Harm reduction is any program or policy designed to reduce drug-related harm without requiring the cessation of drug use” (Erickson et al, 2002).

Rodney Skager of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) says the big four consequences for youth within the zero tolerance philosophy are “exclusion from extracurricular activities, transfer to another school, suspension, and expulsion…” (Skager, 2016). Skager claims zero tolerance approaches worsen the issue (Ibid.). CAMH concluded harm reduction should be implemented with “other proven successful interventions for those with substance use problems” (Erickson et al, 2002).

The main divide between the harm reduction model and zero tolerance model, philosophies, or strategies are the emphases on harm and punishment. The former focuses on the minimization of harm to individuals and communities through respect for persons and rights. The latter focuses on punishment for drug users to punish the individual drug user and set an example for others.

To conclude, Bill C-2 An Act to amend the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (Respect for Communities Act) (2015) describes the full support of the Canadian Medical Association for the harm reduction strategies with the “aim to reduce mortality and morbidity” in spite of “continued exposure to a potentially harmful substance,” especially with addiction defined as “an illness” and that “harm reduction is clinically mandated” as an “ethical method of care and treatment” (Canadian Medical Association, 2015). Although this bill has limited harm reduction by making criteria for applicants and limited exemptions for new clinics, we’re excited that more supervised injection clinics are slowly opening in key cities around Canada, that prescription heroin was just approved as a new evidence-based harm reduction strategy, and that there is opportunity for CSSDP to work together with our local communities and politicians towards harm reduction and to raise awareness about what we can do to help!

Scott Jacobsen

Scott Jacobsen

Board member

Scott Douglas Jacobsen researches and presents independent panels, papers, and posters, and founded In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. Find out more.

Legalizing Cannabis: Lessons for Canada

Legalizing Cannabis: Lessons for Canada

Canada has set a deadline for legalizing cannabis. By spring 2017, the substance will be available for recreational use. During the summer, the Minister of Justice, Jody Wilson-Raybould, on behalf of the Liberal government, unveiled the Task Force for Marijuana Legalization. The Task Force will be responsible for considering all factors that affect the process. Taking into account the opinions of experts, the Task Force will evaluate factors like addiction, youth, health, and more importantly, new laws and international treaties.

Everything looks ready to start pushing the process forward. But, until then, there is a long way to go and a lot of things that should be implemented first. What people usually forget, though, is that until it’s legalized, marijuana is still illegal. And decriminalization? Unlikely.

Lessons Learned on Legalizing Cannabis

Of course, Canada is not the first country, and hopefully not the last, to go through the process of legalizing marijuana for recreational purposes. There are a few countries around the world that Canada can look up to when it comes to cannabis. For instance, five US states (Colorado, Washington, Alaska, Oregon and Washington DC), Portugal, and Netherlands have legalized the substance, at least partially. This infographic from OMQ Law is focused on laws and policies of these countries. Their experience can serve as a useful guide for Canada and its new drug policies.

Let’s take a look at the comparison of laws and practices in the US, Portugal, and the Netherlands.